Highlights from the ‘Shaping Consumer Demand for Sustainable Food’ seminar

August 19, 2022

The second webinar of 2022 organized by the Working group on Sustainable Food Systems was dedicated to consumer perception and consumer science related to sustainable decision-making. We were happy to welcome four expert speakers from research and NGOs who shared different insights on the topic.

The seminar 'Shaping Consumer Demand for Sustainable Food’ seminar took place Friday 24 June at 1 pm (CET). Please find highlights from the session below and available PowerPoint slides can be accessed here.
The first talk was from John Thøgersen (Aarhus University). John focused on changing social norms regarding red meat consumption. As meat is a substantial contributor to food-related greenhouse gas emissions, a decrease in meat consumption can help to significantly improve the environmental sustainability of our food system. John pointed out that meat consumption is strongly linked to social status and has a pronounced symbolic value, therefore making it desirable. On the other hand, an increasing moralization of red meat consumption together with emerging social pressure and new social norms may lead to the adaption of more climate-friendly diets. In order to achieve this, John emphasized the importance of targeting specific social groups, with a special focus on those willing to adapt, but who are still in the process. He further presented nudging as a suitable tool to influence the consumers' behavior to ultimately target the disengaged and change their choice architecture.
Afterwards, Christopher Bryant (University of Bath) gave an overview of how plant-based options can help to move away from meat consumption. He showed that plant-based meat replacements are particularly appealing for certain societal subgroups (e.g. vegetarians or females), whereas other subgroups particularly expressed concerns about the taste of such products. Besides convenience and affordability, Chris therefore emphasized the importance of taste and the necessity for corresponding market strategies to relay this information to the consumer. He showed that the ideal messaging strategies should avoid prominent vegan labels and segmentation of items (e.g. on a restaurant menu), to make plant-based nutrition approachable for everyone. Moreover, the communication related to plant-based meat substitutes should highlight the origins of a product and the richness of flavours. Lastly, health-related messages should be used with caution, as a healthy diet is often associated with a reduced pleasure level during consumption. Ultimately, for reaching a "new normal" considering reduced meat consumption, a tipping point, i.e. a critical mass of committed consumers, has to be exceeded.
Betty Chang (EUFIC, the European Food Information Council) elaborated further on the topic of sustainable food communication towards the consumers. She identified several key challenges in this process and showed potential solutions – starting with the fact that improving sustainability is a long-term process, whereas food choices are based on immediate needs and concerns, but not future implications. Therefore, emphasizing the health-related benefits of reduced meat consumption may make plant-based nutrition more appealing to consumers on a daily basis. Moreover, she showed that different consumer segments have different priorities, depending on their socioeconomic background and experiences. She concluded from this, that tailoring the communication strategy to a particular consumer segment can be beneficial in this regard.

Another challenge arises from the multidimensional and complex nature of sustainability. In order to still enable an efficient communication that reaches consumers, standardization of methods and statements, e.g. through specific sustainability scores and labels, was proposed. In a similar matter, sustainability being a rather abstract term makes it more difficult to reach consumers. Therefore, communication strategies should be concrete and focus on relatable terms and comparisons rather than displaying numbers. Also, guidelines and recommendations are more effective than general statements, or as Chang put it: "showing people "how" is better than showing people "what" ". Lastly, the challenge was pointed out that individuals perceive their personal impact on sustainability to be relatively low. This can be compensated by a storytelling approach, i.e. by framing actions within a larger context. Addressing problems and pointing out strategies on how to overcome those obstacles can ultimately convince people to switch to a more environmentally friendly behaviour.
Lastly, Cliona Howie (Foundation Earth) presented a holistic life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology, in order to design a trusted food label. As already mentioned, the complexity of sustainability calls for the need to simplify the topic to facilitate communication to the consumer. Cliona presented their approach, which provides a sustainability score that states the ecological impact of a product in  a glance. The label is linked to a website where interested consumers can find further information,  such as substantial explanations and backgrounds of the score. With food being an everyday and partly impulsive choice, communication must be as easily digestible as possible, Cliona concluded.

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